Say the word "yoga" and, for some, visions of a hip new exercise trend only suitable for the young, thin and flexible come to mind. Others picture Indian yogis chanting, meditating and living a life of seclusion on a Himalayan mountaintop. But yoga is bigger than both of these preconceptions. Yoga is a practice that incorporates controlled breathing, meditation and physical postures to calm the body and quiet the mind. It empowers individuals toward improved health and well-being with an emphasis on healthy living, strength and flexibility. This makes it an ideal form of exercise for people of all ages and abilities. Better yet, it is cheap, easy and effective.
The practice of yoga developed on the subcontinent India and has been documented as early as 3000 B.C.E. It has been used for its therapeutic benefits for thousands of years. The word yoga comes from the same Sanskrit root as the word for yoke. It implies union in all its significances and dimensions and is often referred to as a practice that promotes physical, mental and spiritual integration. This mirrors the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of illness or disease. Clinicians and scientific researchers have begun to recognize the connection between yoga and health.
Yoga originated as a spiritual and philosophical practice in India 5,000 years ago. The philosophical teachings were first introduced in the United States through the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Throughout the 20th century, the practice slowly gained a wider audience and became recognized for its benefits in promoting health and wellness. Currently, 18 million people practice yoga in the U.S. As individuals find relief from such common maladies as back pain, arthritis, anxiety and stress through the practice of yoga, researchers have begun to study its effects on a wide range of illnesses.
Most people discover the practice through the physical exercises (asanas) or by learning to control the breath (pranayama). However, yoga is much more comprehensive than simply moving and breathing. In order to understand the health benefits of yoga, it is important to understand the philosophical roots and depth of the practice.
There are eight aspects to the practice of yoga. The first two, the yamas and niyamas, are universal and individual moral restraints and guidelines. They provide guidelines for healthy behavior. The third limb, asana, represents the postures of yoga. These postures help develop physical strength and flexibility. Pranayama, or mindful breathing, is the fourth limb. Studies of pranayama often focus on the reduction of stress and improvement of symptoms in pulmonary disease. The fifth and sixth limbs, pratyhara and dharana, can be thought of as turning inward and concentration. Dhyana, or meditation, is the seventh limb. Meditation has been studied in stress management, anxiety, depression and cardiovascular disease. The final limb, samadhi, is bliss. All the other limbs lead to samadhi which is the union of the individual with the object of meditation.
While the practice of yoga postures is very similar to physical therapy, a yogic approach to healing is more comprehensive. It is not merely exercise, nor is it a method to simply cure physical disease. Instead, it is a comprehensive path to healing that encompasses physical, mental and spiritual well-being. With yoga you work on more than physical exercise. You learn to control your breath, link your body’s movement with your breath, develop greater body awareness and relax deeply.
Through the practice of yoga you gain strength, flexibility and serenity. With regular practice, your body becomes stronger and more flexible. As your physical strength increases your inner power grows. Mental flexibility accompanies physical flexibility and your thinking becomes less rigid. You learn to “go with the flow.”